Monday, March 29, 2010

Talk About Stammering, Talk About Life

Have you ever had one of those dreams when you feel as if you desperately need to say something, only to find that the words just won't come out? People gaze at you, waiting for the words to come. Inside your head, you hear the words echo around, you push and push to try and make it come out, but the harder you push, the harder it gets. Paralysis. For most of us, this kind of experience will only ever occur in our sleep, in something that could be termed an 'anxiety dream'. However, for many, this kind of experience is commonplace in everyday waking life. Stammering, or stuttering, affects around 1% of the world's population. It usually begins in early childhood. The initial causes of stammering remain undetermined. It has been suggested that it relates to childhood trauma of some sort. However, this has still not been scientifically verified. Most children who stammer will 'grow out' of the disorder. For others, the stammer will solidify its presence. Just as the cause of stammering is uncertain, so too is any cure. People have suddenly stopped stammering but why this is so is unclear. The longer stammering remains present, the less likely it will be to depart. Those who still stammer at the onset of adulthood are likely never to be any different.

For the non-stammerer, it can sometimes seem irrelevant if someone stammers or not. However, even for those who display seemingly minor stammering, it is probably one of the biggest factors in their lives. In general, there are two types of stammerers. Overt stammerers are those who exhibit clear and present disfluency. Someone in conversation with an overt stammerer will notice frequent speech disruption in the guise of prolonged sssssssssounds, many r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-reptitions and severe ------------------blocks. Overt stammerers may also display diversionary behaviours to try and cope with their stammer such as erratic facial movement, eye closure, head jerking and short sharp breaths. The overt stammerer finds speaking to others a real struggle and will openly project this. Listeners may feel awkward and sympathetic and try and lessen the load on the stammerer by finishing their words or nodding before they have completed their sentence. Parents will often tell a stammering child to calm down or to take deep breaths. Such actions, whilst well meant, only serve to create and enforce the stammerer's sensitivity, leading to more and more disruption.

Covert stammerers are much less inclined to project physical struggle in speaking. They may let the odd disruption out here and there, but it is more than likely that listeners will view them as someone with a mild and irrelevant stammer. However, for the covert stammerer, the stammer is anything but irrelevant. Instead, they resolve to conceal the stammer at all costs. They cannot handle an open projection of their speech disruption; for they are too ashamed. Openly stammering is probably one of the most detested things a covert stammerer can do. Consequently, they undertake avoidance behaviour. This means that there are certain words and sounds that they will try to avoid saying. The problem is that the feared words usually represent important personal details like one's address, phone-number, and most devastatingly, the stammerer's name. Hence they will often try and communicate these details non verbally through e-mails, text messages, or the trusted aid of friends and family. They even develop ways of getting the person that they are talking to to say the words for them.

Whereabouts are you from?

Ah..just down there in the south east, beside wexford and above waterford..


No..It's beside that too


Yeah Kilkenny, I live in Kilkenny.

(It is often the case that hearing someone else say the word releases the tension the stammerer feels about saying the word)

This kind of avoidance enforces underlying feelings of sensitivity and anxiety and can also make the stammerer appear socially inept. When they do find themselves in the dreaded situations, where they have exhausted all avoidance and have no option but to actually speak, the avoided words will come out through severe and prolonged silent blocks, separated by visible facial distress and clear embarrassment. The covert stammerer is likely to feel disillusioned and even depressed after such an event. Despite their best efforts, they have failed to conceal their hated ailment. The trauma of 'exposure' leads them to work harder and harder to conceal future stammering. And so the cycle continues..

As someone who has had a stammer since early childhood, i have become well acquainted with all of the above behaviours. In my case, unusually, the stammer did not become a real source of anguish until i started 3rd level education. Adjusting to new surroundings, new people and an unfamiliar way of life had a dramatic impact on my speech. This was all the more distressing for me since i had come through primary and secondary school being reasonably confident in my speech, i had even captained a debating team. However, by the end of a stressful first year in college, i found that saying my name was becoming an impossible task. The more i had to say it, the worse it got. One particular telephone conversation left me feeling very down after it had taken me nearly one minute to identify myself. As a covert stammerer, i tried desperately to cover it up saying that the telephone line was bad and that i couldn't hear my co-converser. My first attempt to do something about it was to enrol on a well known programme that advertised considerable success. It focused mostly on breathing. I did quite well at first but soon found that the technique needed almost militaristic enforcement, something that i was just not ready for. Eventually my speech deteriorated to even worse than it had been before. I felt guilty for not keeping the technique i had been thought and as a result, I fell deeper into negative and repressive habits. Eventually, i became an overt stammerer because 'avoiding' was eroding my vocabulary so much that communication was becoming extremely difficult. I decided that being overt was the only, if painful, option i had.

The loneliest aspect of stammering is the fact that your concerns and anxieties are so alien and incomprehensible to the 99% of people that don't. It's difficult to explain why i can sometimes seem mostly fluent and at other times, practically mute. I can't really convey why it feels so exhausting to avoid certain words and replace them with others. Such things can never really be truly understood by people who don't have the problem. This sentiment creates mental alienation within the stammerer. Consequentially, you try and suppress the emotions involved in stammering because you feel that nobody can ever really understand you. The observation of this process led American speech pathologist, Joseph Sheehan, to compare stammering to an iceberg. He came to this by outlining that most of a stammering problem is psychological. This psychology is made up of all the negative thoughts emotions that the person associates with their stammer. Due to the isolation, lack of understanding, and sheer sensitivity being felt by the person, they decide that being open about stammering is impossible. Hence, their emotions are kept below the visible surface. They remain uncommunicated and fester in the person's mind. They are treated as unspeakable, both mentally and literally. They are the bedrock of the stammerer's anxiety and the driving force behind a stammering problem.

Recently, i undertook new therapy to try and escape this never-ending nightmare. The whole experience was profoundly relieving. The simple act of spending time with people who suffer the same problem was therapeutic in itself. We were asked by the the programme directors, all stammerers themselves, to open up and talk about our experience as stammerers. Slowly, the anxiety in my mind started to wane. It felt good to start melting the iceberg. The most profound thing I learned from the programme was another quote from Joseph Sheehan, the pathologist mentioned earlier. He classified a stammering problem as a 'false role' disorder. That is, the reason people struggle with stammers is because they are try to play the false role of someone who does not stammer. Hence, they are placing unquantifiable psychological pressure on themselves not to stammer. As a result, their physical speech is impacted and disrupted by the sheer force of mental pressure being self-applied. Logically, this suggests that if stammerers stop trying 'not to stammer', they will stammer less. Further still, it suggests that we should even stammer on purpose. Voluntary stammering is a psychological and physical technique of subtly advertising your stammer to the listener. It is c-c-calm, mmmeasured and controlled. By doing this, stammerers are defusing the tension that is always present every time they speak. It also dissuades the stammerer from the long and winding road of avoidance. Patience is required as it takes time for the mind to internalise new ways of dealing with stammering.

Another facet of the therapy was to encourage us to make a link between our stammering problem and other emotional problems that we may have had. The idea behind this was to recognise that as human beings, our problems are not isolated from each other. Rather, they are interlinked and overlapping. Therefore, the emotions that we experience from stammering are not exclusive to the stammer itself. The triggering mechanism may be different, but the emotions are not unique. This led me to consider that all the negative emotions I felt when stammering were may not be all caused by the stammer, and that some are instead, being facilitated by it. This pseudo-epiphany helped me realise that treating my stammering problem means that I am also examining other parts of myself that i consider problematic. Hence, I am obliged to look at myself holistically to try and identify sources of tension and anxiety, and i am all the better for it. In this way, I now realise that having a stammer may not be such a bad thing after all; it has helped me to take a long, hard look at myself and start tackling issues that I felt unapproachable. So even though this long piece has primarily been a step in stammering desensitisation, i hope that it is a practical example of me 'walking the walk' after the wordy rhetoric of my previous three entries.

For more information on stammering, you should check out the Patrick Kelly Stammering Course, just type into google. You can also look at the Irish Stammering Association's website at